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"Feminist reclaiming of water metaphors"

  • Coady, Ann
Publication Date
Apr 04, 2024
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Water has long been associated with women and more recently with feminism: from referring to ships and storms as she, to the use of the wave metaphor in feminist historiography to recent feminist interventions in conceptualisations of water itself.The metaphor of water when referring to women has often been used in a negative way to describe the innate nature of women. In The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Ernest Hemmingway describes how the old man always thought of the sea as a woman, “as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought”. The stereotype of women as being an uncontrollable natural force, especially around menstruation, is evident here. Indeed, between the 1950s and late 1970s in the USA, storms were named exclusively after women, drawing on a supposed link between women’s innately unpredictable, irrational nature and the nature of storms.Feminism has, however, reclaimed water in a positive light. The waves metaphor is commonly used in feminist historiography to refer to the different periods of feminism, beginning with the First Wave at the end of the 19th century to the current Fourth Wave, and has been useful to express feminist anger and frustration.The metaphor of water as feminist resistance has also been used in feminist literature. This metaphor is what Suzette Haden Elgin is drawing on in Earthsong (1994) when one of the characters names a group of female linguists the “Meandering Water Tribe”. When asked why, he replies, “Because you linguist women don’t go in a straight line from A to B to C. You go this way a while, and that way a while, and this way again, instead. And you go gently and quietly. But you get there, always! You meander, as water meanders, headed for the oceans … and then you arrive.” Margaret Atwood uses the same metaphor in The Penelopiad (2005) when Penelope’s mother says to her, “Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does”.More recently, feminism has criticised the way that water is often conceptualised as a “neutral, and passive resource […] as an inanimate commodity to be regulated and managed” (Hayman, 2012:23), linking this to the way that the female body has historically been conceptualised in similar ways, and to how water scarcity disproportionally affects girls and women. Water scarcity is now therefore firmly on the feminist agenda. In order to tackle this problem, feminists are criticising the conceptualisation of WATER AS A COMMODITY, instead using the metaphor of WATER AS A COMMON GOOD in order to orient policy (UN 2023).This presentation aims to explore how metaphors of water have been reclaimed by feminism, as well as how feminism is current trying to shape how we conceptualise water. The theoretical framework that informs this presentation is feminist theory and cognitive linguistics. I use various feminist corpora from UN policy documents to feminist literature and analyse them using critical metaphor analysis (Charteris-Black (2004)).ReferencesAtwood, Margaret (2005). The Penelopiad. Canongate.Charteris-Black, Jonathan. 2004. Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis. Palgrave Macmillan.Haden Elgin, Suzette (1994). Earthsong. Science Fiction Gateway.Hayman, Eleanor Ruth. “Shaped by the Imagination: Myths of Water, Women, and Purity.” RCC Perspectives, no. 2 (2012): 23–34., Ernest (1952). The Old Man and the Sea. Penguin.UN (2023). From commodity to common good: a feminist agenda to tackle the world’s water crisis. Available at:

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